Talking and Teaching Taboos
Talking about sexuality AND religion for a living can be a daunting task. These topics come with a host of stereotypes, not to mention a presumption of privacy. Another way to describe what I do is to say that I “talk taboos.” Now, that’s not new news for most feminists. Speaking and writing about the silences that support discrimination, lead to violence, and masquerade as conclusive truths is part of the terrain.
When one decides to teach about sexuality in the context of a seminary or a congregation (often Christian contexts for me), there is an added layer of taboo. I have found over the years, it is impossible to engage in a rich educational experience about sexuality, faith, and religion without at some point examining one’s own sexual attitudes and history. This is something that sexuality educators have known for years. And in the last decade, three denominations in the United States have also decided is a necessary part of seminary education. The United Methodist Church is the most recent to add a requirement for its ordination candidates, but the Metropolitan Community Church and the Unitarian Universalists also have requirements. Yet, the task of balancing personal assessment and content based learning is never easy—especially when the topic is sexuality related.
Churches and seminary classrooms are often an uncomfortable space to talk about sexuality precisely because years of Christian history have made the subject taboo! This is the main reason I spend a good deal of time modeling how to talk about sexuality in a factual, straightforward, and careful manner. Issues of sexuality are not something we need to fear, but they also are not to be treated flippantly either. I am never more aware of this than when the topic turns to sexual pleasure and masturbation in particular.
I was asked last summer to participate a book called Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith. The project includes 40 Christian women under 40 who write about a taboo related to their faith. Since most of my work is on sexuality and children/youth, I immediately knew what I wanted to talk about . . . and yet, I second guessed myself the entire time I was writing. As I say in my chapter:
I grew up attending Catholic schools through high school and participating in a Catholic campus center in college. Sexual pleasure and masturbation were not on the top of the “positive behaviors to promote” list in either of these classes. In fact, masturbation is still categorized in the Catechism as an “intrinsically and gravely disordered action” (a.k.a. sin). I was taught that there is one kind of sex; it is for having children, and only when you are married. . . .
Then, in my seminary Sexual Ethics class, I was assigned to read Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics by Christine Gudorf, a Roman Catholic moral theologian. It changed me. Not because I hadn’t learned about sexual pleasure in other contexts, but because I had never heard a positive religious, let alone Catholic, perspective in favor of sexual pleasure. I read the line, “If the placement of the clitoris in the female body reflects the divine will, then God wills that sex is not just oriented to procreation, but is at least, if not more, oriented to pleasure.” Sexual pleasure could be something God intended? And, the evidence for this is women’s bodies? Is the clitoris? Sexual pleasure, especially masturbation, was lifted from moral caution—or worse, the depths of sinfulness—to a form of self-empowerment and aide in relationship building. In this sense, it could actually be morally good!
When I choose to speak about taboos, I speak frankly and with care. In most cases, it also requires I reflect on my own history, attitudes, and current practices. These can be a source for engaging our traditions more deeply and offering an authentic critique. In Talking Taboo, I decided to speak boldly about a topic many folks do not consider fit for “church or seminary” audiences. Religious affirmation of sexual self-pleasure can seem like a selfish and almost petty concern in the face of issues like ecological degradation, violence, war, and poverty. Aren’t there more important things to worry about as a Christian? I believe that encouraging empowerment of women, even in small ways, slowly chips away at the very foundation of these larger injustices.
Ask yourself, what would the world look like if every girl and woman knew exactly how her body worked? What would the world look like if every girl’s and woman’s body was respected and her enjoyment of sexual behaviors was as important as that of her partner? What would the world look like if every girl and woman could choose her partner freely and plan her pregnancies if she chose to have children? That would be the world, I believe, God intended. In a society and religious tradition that often sees women as sexual objects, rather than subjects, masturbation is a practice of self-love, self-knowledge, and self-empowerment.
Participating in the Talking Taboo project reinforced for me that talking taboos is a feminist practice for teaching and writing. Encouraging that practice in classrooms and congregations has important ramifications for our political and global lives, as well as our personal lives.